On 2nd April I started an online forum under the title of “Does Wenger deserve a new contract?” I was intrigued to learn more about what fans genuinely feel about the most successful manager in the history of Arsenal Football Club - a man who ushered the Gunners into the 21st century and has been instrumental in re-shaping the entire ethos and infrastructure of the club. The range of responses to my question was colourful to say the least, and it has prompted me to revisit the debate with a wider audience - under what circumstances should Monsieur Wenger be rewarded with a new contract beyond 2014? Would a change in management bring about a positive change? If so, what alternatives can we realistically turn to? The leadership of Arsenal Football Club is an important topic of conversation, one which in my opinion has too readily been clouded by heated rants rather than sensible debate.
The hub of discussion that most fans revolve around or attempt to reconnect with when debating Wenger’s position is the lack of trophies since 2005 - arguably an unacceptable return for a club that consistently features at Champions League level and ought to make the most of the pulling power that the competition provides. Some even query the value of us being in it in the first - “what is so great about Champions League football - or more to the point, our participation in it - if we don’t ever win anything?” … Advocates of such a view direct their accusations towards the ‘cult of Wenger’ (let’s face it all of us at some point have had a natural affinity for the man) as having re-defined the meaning of “success” at the club - the fact that many now view a top four finish (and the subsequent spoils of the Champions League) as an end goal in itself. Does this mean that the ever-growing demands for his removal are justified?
While certainly a headline grabber, in my opinion this outlook misses the point. It also oversteps the mark as despite all the anti-Wenger rhetoric, a top four finish (particularly in the eyes of the man himself having amassed 11 trophies in 17 years) is simply NOT the end goal in itself. It is merely one target that facilitates additional opportunities for the club. Being the world’s elite club competition (the World Club Cup is not quite there yet, despite what Corinthians would have you believe…), of course we need to feature in it each year! Furthermore, common sense suggests something more insightful and relevant. Namely, that European football offers us a chance to showcase talent to a wider global audience than teams stuck in mid-table mediocrity. Regular Champions League football also attracts the likes of Cazorla, Podolski, and Monreal to the club - players that otherwise are arguably out of reach - and pits us against the best, which can only benefit our overall performance.
However, there are also other reasons why the argument of Wenger “redefining” success at the club fails to hold up in isolation. If we consider what Arsenal achieved last season with ‘Le Profesor’ at the helm, despite effectively losing an entire midfield in pre-season (Fabregas and Nasri being transferred, and Wilshere to long term injury), then our resultant third place finish becomes quite a remarkable achievement! What other manager in the Premier League would have had the ability to turn such a diabolical situation (remember the feeling after the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United?) into such a finish? For those that then point towards our inability to maintain the services of RVP as justification to paint 2011/12 as a ‘failure’ also miss the point (we currently average 1.96 goals per game in 2012/13 as opposed to 1.94 last season, and the goals are being spread evenly throughout the squad).
Another key area to consider when debating whether Wenger represents the future of Arsenal Football Club are the managerial decisions that he has taken, both on and off the pitch. The appointment of Vermaelen as club captain is proving to be a popular source of whip-cracking - an appointment which at the time was greeted with widespread fanfare. After all, the ‘Verminator’ had proved himself a loyal servant to the club and led the troops by example through his athleticism and technical ability. However, ever since a recent dip in form - arguably a result of Wenger’s decision to play him at left back in place of the injured Kieran Gibbs - the tide has turned against him. Many punters now point towards a Mertesacker/Koscielny combination as the only viable option at the heart of our defence, and one which Arsenal should have been sticking by months ago.
Indeed, the gripe that many fans now have with Wenger is that he has been too ready to stick with players by reputation rather than those in form and deserved of a place. Again however, I am not sure whether this argument fully stacks up, despite its immediate appeal - both Gervinho and Podolski were cut quite suddenly from what in September had been regular starting berths (although Gervinho did have the disruption of the African Cup of Nations to contend with), and Theo Walcott likewise was benched for a period during his all too public contract negotiations. Is it fair therefore to claim that Arsene is too soft a touch? That he lacks the ruthlessness to continue driving Arsenal in an upward trajectory?
For those that still maintain that Wenger is done and dusted, it is imperative that we then consider what realistic alternatives exist. The diversity of names being thrown about in recent debates is rather interesting… Jurgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund seems an attractive choice at first glance - he could certainly fit the age and experience profile, having achieved results both with lower league clubs and two league titles with Dortmund. For me though, he is not the answer - the Bundesliga, for all its qualities, is not as competitive as the Premier League. Furthermore, his success at Dortmund in 2010/11 and 2011/12 was achieved largely during a time of a historically weak Bayern Munich team. Another couple of names being circulated are Ancelotti (why would he want to leave a club on the rise with billions of dollars in the bank?) and Frank Rijkaard, who while certainly decorated, has not won anything since 2005/06, and in my opinion has question marks over both tactical and mental strength (recall the psychological and tactical demolition that he experienced when Chelsea knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League).
Furthermore (and at the risk of inflaming the wrath of many fans…get ready!), would an imminent managerial shake-up necessarily be a good thing for the solidity that the board (yes, that man Stan and others!) have built for the club over the past several years. Despite the animosity shown towards them by most fans - some of which is understandable, some of which is overblown nonsense - we need to also concede their success in redeveloping the old Highbury, the profits that this will bring over time, and the construction of a beautiful stadium which is placing us on a firm footing for generations to come - primarily to invest in youth and new players/wages once the debt is hammered down.
So, what circumstances should Monsieur Wenger be rewarded with a new contract beyond 2014? The answer lies in how realistic the club and its fans are willing to be when defining their goals. The last couple of seasons in particular have been rocky periods for the club. It is true that we have not been able to compete financially (at least in the short and medium term) with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. Key players have left the club and/or been injured for long periods of time, which would have been an incredible burden regardless of who we had at the helm. I have argued that despite the difficult period we find ourselves in, our results over the past couple of seasons have been not far off remarkable.
Admittedly the fact that we are without a trophy since 2005 is a dark cloud over Wenger’s head, and one that will continue to fuel debate. But what immediate alternatives do we have to turn to? I have argued that there are none - at least no viable candidates that could step in right now and do a better job, let alone commit to a long term project at the club. I personally err on the side of sticking with Wenger to the end of his contract, regardless of where we finish in the league. Stability is key at this juncture, and change for the sake of change will do no one any favours. The most sensible course of action is to revisit the question on a season by season basis (Wenger will not go on forever after all). When we see a realistic alternative, then fine, but for now should we not stick with him and recognise what he has been achieved for the club?
The original forum appeared on the Arsenal Times Message Board